Mastering Pho

Feb 20, 2019 | Recipes, Soups

Pho is a soup and noodle dish originating in Vietnam in the early 20th century. Generally, it is made with beef, but chicken and vegetarian versions exist as well.

Pho consists of three main components. The broth. The noodles. And, the garnish.

The broth is a rich stock made of beef bones and meat. Spices such as cinnamon, and star anise are included along with deeply roasted vegetables like onion and ginger. If the pho is served with chicken, the broth is chicken based. Mushroom based versions exist for vegetarians.

The noodles are a specific type of medium wide rice noodle. These can be found in most grocery stores now.

Finally, there is the garnish. This includes sauces like sriracha, hoisin sauce, fish sauce, and soy sauce. Vegetables and herbs like Thai basil, bean sprouts, green onion, cilantro and lime. And meat like thin slices of beef or chicken, small meat balls, tripe, or pretty much anything else.

Pho is generally served with sriracha, hoisin, fish sauce, and soy sauce as the broth, though flavourful is fairly mild. These condiments allow the patron to add spice, sweetness, and umami to their own taste. This makes pho the perfect dish for anyone hesitant about bold Thai flavours, or South East Asian flavours in general.

Making The Broth

Because the base of pho and the main flavours are coming from the broth it is important that the broth be of really good quality. It is also important to note that the broth is not complicated to make. It does take time, however this is something you can put in your slow-cooker or instant pot and leave to cook while you’re at work.


The ingredients for pho broth can be broken down into three categories. Meat and bones. Spices. And vegetables. Let’s take a look at each.

Meat and Bones

Marrow bones or soup bones are used along with a few cuts of meat like shank or ox tail. Really, for the meat you want something tough and flavourful. You’re not going to be eating this meat. It is used to flavour the broth and for it’s fat.

Both the bones and meat can generally be found in the frozen section of your butcher shop, the butcher aisle at the grocery store, or just ask your butcher. Luckily, these bones, and pieces of meat are really cheap.

Though they can be used raw, it is best to roast the bone on 400°f for a while to develop a deep caramel colour on the surface. This will add depth to the flavour of the broth as well as colour.


Spices often used include star anise, cinnamon, clove, fennel seed, coriander seed, and sometimes black cardamom and dried chili.

When using these spices it is important to toast them in a hot dry pan (no oil) until they start to become aromatic (smell strongly) and release their natural oils (they start to shine). This enhances their flavour and thus, enhances the flavour of the broth.

Often the spices will be wrapped in cheese cloth but the broth will be strained through a sieve so it really isn’t necessary to do that.


The vegetables used to make pho broth are pretty straight forward. Onion and ginger. That’s generally it. However, like the beef bones, these are roasted.

Roasting the ginger and the onions until they develop a deep brown colour intensifies their flavour. There is a second purpose as well. The roasted onion helps to clarify the broth keeping it clear. The darker the onion, the more it will help to clarify. Often the onion will be roasted over direct flame to char it. But roasting it in the oven is fine.

Putting it all together

Once the bones, meat, and vegetables are roasted, and the spices are toasted they all go in a pot together. Cold water is added, enough to cover everything by at least one inch. It is very important that cold water be used to insure a clear broth.

Once everything is in the pot bring it up to a boil. As soon as the broth starts to boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer for an hour or two. If the broth is left to boil it will become cloudy.

While the broth is simmering it must be skimmed. You will notice a scum form on the surface. This is perfectly natural but if it is left to recirculate into the broth, it can cloud it. Do this every 20-30 minutes. Use a ladle, a spoon, or whatever and pull anything off the surface that looks like it shouldn’t be there.

Once the broth is flavourful (after about 2 hours) you want to strain it. You’re saving the liquid and discarding the solids. If you don’t have a fine mesh sieve you can use a colander lined with Measurements

To me, pho broth isn’t the kind of thing that demands precision. Having said that, there needs to be some guide lines. If you want to make this at home what I would say is this, ues 3-4 lbs of beef bones. They will be labelled soup bones or marrow bones. With that use 3-4 pieces of ox tail or 1 piece of beef shank.

For the vegetables and spices I use 2-3 baseball sized onions, 2 thumb sized pieces of ginger, 2 star anise, 5 cloves, 1/2 tsp fennel seeds and 1 tsp coriander seeds.

Other things you can add to pho

Generally when I make pho I add the soy sauce, and fish sauce right into the broth when I’m making it as opposed to serving it on the side. If you would like to do this use 4-5 drops of fish sauce and 1-2 tbsp of soy sauce.

Finishing the dish

Okay, you’ve made your broth, your house smells amazing, now what?

Cook up some rice noodles. I do this by boiling water, pouring it over the noodles and letting them site for about 5 minutes or until they are soft. Drain the noodles and put them in a bowl.

Add your garnish to the noodles. A bit of cooked beef, bean sprouts, green onion, cilantro, Thai basil, sliced Thai chili, whatever you want. Pour the stock over the noodles and season with soy sauce, fish sauce, sriracha, and hoisin and enjoy!


Pho is a really delicious and fairly straightforward soup. Though it takes time, most of that time is passive, just waiting for the broth. If you have never made it, or if you have never eaten it, you really, really should. You don’t know what you’re missing.

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